Drowning is the third common cause of accidental death for adults, and the
second most common cause of unintentional injury death among children and young adults in
the United States. Every year, new rescue and recovery dive teams are formed to find
drowning victims. They are formed by fire and law enforcement departments, military,
sometimes EMS squads, and even people outside the public safety community.
The First Step
The first step in setting up a safe and effective dive team, is understanding
the common problems many teams face each day, along with their risks and potential safety
hazards. Public safety diving and water rescue in general, are, in many ways, the most
chaotic and potentially dangerous jobs in the public safety arena. Dive teams have to
perform surface, as well as subsurface operations. Both will be addressed in this series.
Why are standards and guidelines
critical to safety?
A fire chief would not dream of sending a firefighter into a fully
involved blaze without turnout gear, a SCBA unit, back-up personnel, etc. But, that
same chief, who probably knows very little or nothing about water rescue, might order a
public safety diver into the water without a quick release pony bottle, at least two
cutting tools, a back-up diver, etc. A police captain, who would never think of
sending his officers into a gun fight without weapons and a back-up, might threaten to
fire a dive team captain who refuses to put his team in a fastwater situation they are not
The explanation for the above actions are simple. There are poor or
no mandatory minimum water incident standards. The Officer in Charge does not have a set
of procedures to implement and make decisions with. How do Officers in Charge make water
related risk-benefit decisions? Too often, the family and higher authorities demanding
action are the driving force. The lack of accepted standards and guidelines creates other
problems for water rescue/recovery operations. Jobs are not well defined on a site -what
does the fire department do? What does the police department do? Where should EMS be? Who
is in charge, Fire or Police? Teams dont drill for them. Department officers
dont understand the job. Mayors and other public officials who order municipal
departments to perform these dangerous operations also lack understanding. There are few,
if any, budgets allocated for training and equipment.
Public safety divers and water rescue team
members are often more likely to be put at sometimes unnecessary risk than other rescue
The following are just a few samples:
Please Note: The previous Aquacorps citation regarding the PSD fatality in Knoxville Tennessee had incorrect information. This citation was also in this same article that was printed in the "So you want to start a dive team" series, and has since been removed. We regret this very much and any concerns it may have caused.
Vermont, early 1990s:
Montana, November 15, 1996, Chronicle:
This article is not meant in any way to dissuade you from starting
a dive team. There are long term drowning victims who are alive today because of dive
teams. For example, FDNY Rescue Dive Team saved Diedre Silverman, "the Miracle
Girl," in Brooklyn, 1985, after she was submerged in a van for 28 minutes. She is
alive and well today. We wish that every county in our country, with water, could have a
dive team with rapid response capability.
The goal of this series is to help you make the following
To learn more on a continual basis, join the RIPTIDE wateroperation discussion group.
BLACK WATER DIVING
By Walt "Butch" Hendrick
Lifeguard Systemswww.teamlgs.com www.rip-tide.org
845-331-3383 845-331-2668 Fax P.O. Box 548 Hurley, NY 12443 USA
When you believe the water is as black as it can get, suddenly the unthinkable happens, it becomes even blacker, and you know instantly something has happened, and you are probably not out sport diving. When we talk about black water diving, we are talking about zero visibility, not a little, zero, none. Were not talking brown water, we are talking black as black can be. Carry a powerful dive light and you could not see its beam even if you placed it in front of your mask.
In public safety diving, where we are most often searching for something on the bottom. Technique and consistency become imperative in our most typical situation - black water diving. Since divers cannot see where they are, they have no orientation to where shore is, where they are, where they have been, or where they are going next. Therefore, their diving is tender controlled, tender-directed-tethered-solo diving.
A trained shore or boat based tenders controls his divers every movement via a tether line securely attached to the diver. A series of trained signals more often than not becomes their only form of communication, as well as their orientation, and safety - stop, face the line, okay?, left, right, up, down, standby, Im entangled but Im okay, Im okay but need assistance, Im not okay and need immediate assistance, etc.
In a disoriented environment, the human mind seeks logic, the minds eye seeks a center, a focal point that can give it some sort of logical orientation. Similar to flying an airplane in blacked out conditions, the minds eye must learn how to trust, an often illogical orientation. Without a direct orientation the minds eye cannot allow the brain to focus and thereby trust the information being received.
Public safety divers searching in black water use their minds eye in a second fashion, they connect their finger tips, toes, entire body as a big feeling machine. Without visibility divers enhance their other senses to connect what they feel to their minds eye. A touch becomes a vision the portion of our brain matter that allows us to visually perceive what we are touching, what is around us, where we are and how it relates to where we have been and are going.
Since public safety divers cannot see, the most effective black water searches are done by tender controlled, tethered, solo divers. Solo divers can focus all their mental attention and physical senses on the search, unlike buddied divers who spend half their attention keeping track of, and staying with, each other. Tethered solo diving with a back-up diver less than 60 seconds away and a 90% ready diver 90 seconds away, is actually safer in black water search operations than buddy or group searches. If one diver gets in trouble with entanglements, entrapment, out-of-air emergencies, fatigue, etc., the buddy is also likely to be in the same or similar situation. In tethered, solo diving, the back-up diver is warm, rested, and ready to go with a full tank.
The tender and diver work together as one. The diver is the tenders "eyes." Tenders are the most important people on the site and have the greatest responsibility, Anyone can go underwater and move up, down, right, left, etc. Controlling all of that, and knowing what to do when it is not going perfect is the hard part. The divers job is to do as their tender tells them. Tenders can see where the divers are and where the divers are going, by the relationship of the divers bubbles, the angle of the tether line, and line movement. The tender monitors the angles of the line and how it relates to references on shore or a series of buoys.
The distance marked tether line is attached to the divers harness with a locking carabiner. Keep the line free of loops and knots.The harness is designed for water rescue and tethered diving. The girth strap goes, around the ribs at the level of the solar plexus. If it sat lower it would force the wearer in a vertical position, it could cause discomfort in the unprotected kidney area, and could restrict diaphragm movement resulting in breathing difficulty. The harness needs to have adjustable shoulder straps so the girth can be adjusted to the correct position. Next, the girth strap needs to be closed correctly. Too loose and signals wont be easily felt, too tight and breathing will be restricted. The tender tells the diver to place a hand flat against his solar plexus while taking a large breath. The tender closes the harness adjusting it to fit snugly against the divers hand.
The 3/8th inch, flexible, solid braid, floating tether line is attached to the locking carabiner with a figure eight knot. The carabiner is attached to the harness D-ring tether point that sits slightly off center to the solar plexus to help keep the line from ending up between the divers legs. With a properly sized harness, a diver can feel signals across a maximum of 150 feet of line in calm water and weather.
The tender wears a personal flotation device and good gloves, and may be harnessed and tethered back to a secure object if the shore bank is steep or slippery. The end of the divers tether line is secured with a nonlocking carabiner and a strap to a nonmoving object. The back-up diver and back-up tender, and the 90% ready diver are in place. A rescue throw rope bag, a contingency pony bottle and full 80 cuft cylinder with a regulator, are placed near the back-up divers tender.
As the diver prepares to descend the tender gives a signal of one, (okay) the diver returns the signal, signifying, all is okay for leaving surface. The tender gently controls the line as the diver descends. In moving water, procedures are a little different. As the diver reaches the bottom he responds with a one, signifying he reached the bottom, is comfortable, and is ready to begin searching.
The tender signals right (3) or left (4) telling the diver which direction to begin the search. The divers job is to search and maintain a taught line. If there is slack in the line the divers job is to take it up, hence if the tender wants the diver to go further out, the tender simply gives more line, at which point the diver takes up the slack and goes further out. If the tender wants the diver to come in, she slowly and gently pulls the diver in. Signals are always returned and always oriented to the divers right or left.
If your tenders have trouble figuring out the divers right and left, mark the tending gloves with L= 4 on the right hand and R= 3 on the left. This may seem childish however we find people often have trouble with their right and left.
As the diver reaches the turn-around-point at the end of the sweep, the tender signals one, telling the diver to stop and face the line. The diver follows the instruction, taking up any slack that may have been created, and returns the one. The divers orientation to the tender and shore is now fixed in his minds eye. He now knows which is his left and right, up and down. No matter how dark the water, the diver will have a center point making orientation easy.
As the diver changes direction, the tender brings the diver into the new sweep by taking in the line. Ninety percent of the time, divers are pulled in towards the tender at the end of each sweep, instead of being let out. Divers will search more effectively if they know they are continually working their way home - as their tank pressures decreases, as they become fatigued and possibly frustrated, and as they lose fluids and possibly work towards cold or heat stress.
The amount of line taken in is in direct proportion to the visibility and the size of the object being searched for. In zero visibility-small item situations, the diver is pulled in one to two feet. Searches for large items such as a full size adult bodies allow two to three feet between sweeps.
The back-up divers tender draws every move the primary diver makes on a profile slate, using ranges and marked line distances. (see Fig. # ) The diver can give signals to the tender when large objects or entanglement hazards are encountered. The profile
Divers often argue the concept of tender controlled diving, especially in the beginning stages of public safety underwater work. As sport divers they have learned how to be self reliant, and free swimmers. Free swimming is great when you can see where you are going. Underwater compass work is an excellent skill when you have three advantages. One, you can see your compass, and a little bit of where you are going. Two, when you do not have to make eight to ten exact patterns, one hundred feet long by two to three feet wide. Three, when you do not need both hands to search with or protect yourself from unseen debris. We are for the most part an industry of sport divers, who often reluctantly embrace growth or change even when the need is blatant.
Technical and public safety divers are exploring new territories every day, every dive. Making it work better and safer is what it is all about. In the public safety sector, signals are everything - the divers direction and safety. Contingency signals are also very important. Im entangled but can get myself out, I am OK but require a little help, I am in big trouble and need help now, are three important contingency signals. A single I need help signal can actually be dangerous, yet unfortunately that is all most dive teams have.
One of the things that we work on adamantly for all black water divers is the diver rescue concept. The contingency plan needs to be practiced redundantly. It cannot be a procedure designed in a table-top disucssion, written into the standard operating guidlines, and never taken further from there.
See Blackwater Contingency plan in future issues of SORTIE for why three contingency signals are recommended for blackwater contingency communication procedures.
THIS IS THE FIRST PART OF A
SERIES. THE SECOND PART OF THIS SERIES WILL RUN IN the upcomming on-line RIPTIDE
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